Prophets of Science Fiction

‘Prophets of Science Fiction’ returns after a 2 month hiatus. The series, produced and hosted by director Ridley Scott (‘Alien’, ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Prometheus’) focuses on a science fiction writer whose works were ahead of their time when it came to describing technology and science. Some of the writers already featured were Mary Shelley, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells and  Philip K. Dick. Last night’s episode centered on Issac Asimov, writer of such great science fiction stories as ‘I, Robot’ and ‘Bicentennial Man.’

Asimov’s novels focuses mainly on the simplest of concepts: Are robots the key to human progress or the end of our species?

Asimov grew up in a time where robots were portrayed as crazed mechanical monsters bent on destruction. He had a fondness for pulp science fiction and he began to think of more positive aspects for robots. After all, if the population blindly used other mechanical devices without a second thought (like a blender or radio), then why can’t humanity embrace the same for robots? Asimov imagined a world where robots were helpers and not adversaries.

‘I, Robot’

I, Robot by Isaac AsimovAt 19, Asimov’s first story was published in ‘Astounding Stories’ Magazine. Different from his comtemporaries his robots were highly intelligent and complex and his tales would center on how humans would react to this new type of robot in a love-hate sort of way.

For example, in the early works of the ‘I, Robot’ series, a domesticated and obedient robot was created named Robby. The daughter becomes very attached to the Robot and they form a strong friendship. The parents, however, were nervous about Robby and this new technology and decide to get rid of him. He is relocated to an industrial factory but the daughter is so distraught that Robby is gone, her father has a change of heart and brings her to the factory where he is now working. While there, Robby saves the girl’s life and the family then fully accepts him.

Sixty years later, robot nannies exist but parents are still reluctant to use them. Dr. Maja Mataric from USC and her students are developing socially assistive robots to help humans in every aspect of their lives. They’ve taken robots , who generally just go around picking up objects, and try to expand their uses to other aspects of human life. In a way, make them more acceptable to humans. The students are currently trying to rewrite the algorithm of the robot, aka PR2, so that it will have a more natural interaction with humans, even to the point of respecting their personal space.

Although PR2 looks more mechanical and has no speech, he does have a counterpart named Bandit who has facial features and can engage in short pleasant conversations. Bandit is able to imitate another person’s movements in real time and has already been used with elderly patients, stroke victims and kids with autism.

Socially assisted robots are just an example of how Asimov’s Robby was just a precursor of our future.


The Complete Robot by Isaac AsimovBut what if the robot begins to questions their orders? Asimov’s robots obey human commands but what if that command was harmful to another person? To Asimov, in order for society to really trust robots, they must shift their perception of the mechanical beings. Asimov begins to work on a way that will revolutionize how the world sees robots.

Asimov comes up with 3 laws of Robotics to prevent robots from harming humanity. These 3 laws are:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or allow through inaction for a human being to be harmed.
2. A robot must obey commands given by a human being unless it contradicts the first law.
3. Let no harm come to the robot as long as it does not conflict with Laws 1 and 2.

He puts these laws into effect in his short story ‘Runaround.’ In the novel, humans need to obtain Selenium from a dangerous area so they send out a robot named Speedy to do the job for them. When he doesn’t return after 5 hours, they found him in a state of conflicting directives that essentially paralyze him. The order to get the Selenium is driving Speedy towards the mine but the element is affecting his workings so he feels the need for self-preservation. Speedy is conflicted with Laws 2 and 3 working at the same time. His owner decides to put himself in harm’s way so that Speedy will then break from the stalemate caused by the Laws and save him thereby following Law #1.

The idea of having a robot do dangerous jobs in the tale, compelled 2 engineers to take on the task to see if a robot could really work on the floor of a factory. In 1961, GM actually brought the first industrial robot to life. Other factory workers began to worry that their jobs may soon be performed by robots and they would be replaced. These days, robots are doing just that. They are now performing the work that used to be done by humans essentially making their positions obsolete. Asimov begs the question, could robots soon do the same for other professional areas?

At UC Ivine, there is a robot called Spine Assist that can perform back surgeries at a level of perfection that rivals those of human hands. It helps insert screws into the spine of a patient’s back and allows the orthopedic surgeons more accuracy in their placements of internal fixtures into the spine.

From this robot comes Renaissance which is programmed for more complex procedures like cranial surgeries. This advancement in robotic technology will inevitably lead to question, who really is performing the operation?

‘The Naked Sun’

The Naked Sun Isaac AsimovBy the Second World War, Asimov began to write about what would happen if robots were re-programmed to kill humans but not really be aware of it thereby removing any conflict it would have with Law #1. He postulates about this in his book ‘The Naked Sun.’

In it, a robot is reprogrammed to see humans as inorganic material allowing it to murder them without realizing it. Today, militaries use robot drones to fire missiles and bombs essentially killing people without its knowledge bringing to life the concept of the book.

But not all robots are made for destruction. The company I,Robot, is working on drones and robots that would help during wartime. Most of their robots focus on bomb removal and disposal and are already being used in Afghanistan saving soldiers’ lives. .

‘The Bicentennial Man’

In 1976, Asimov writes a novella blurring the line between biology and technology. He envisions transhumanism, the seamless merging between man and robots where man begins to use cyborg like mechanisms and genetic engineering to create something that is not fully human or fully robotic. This transhumanism has already been somewhat achieved  with the advancement of prosthetics and the use of chips on nerves to control them.

‘The Last Question’

The Last Question by Isaac AsimovIt wasn’t until the then Soviet Union beat the United States in the space race that Asimov decided to shift his focus to non-fiction works. He began to write books that would explain pretty much any subject to the average person. He became so prolific with these books that he had at least one book in 9 out of the 10 subjects of the Dewey decimal system. His books were able to explain subjects better than the books that used to read on that subject. He soon became the expert that other science fiction writers would call if they needed help with the scientific aspects of their tale and the knowledge of knowing everything soon became a burden.

Asimov’s favorite short story explores that burden. In the story, people ask the smartest computer questions like “How can I prevent the universe from ending?” The computer answers that it has insufficient data to answer. Eventually humans become extinct and the computer has amassed all the information the universe has to offer. The computer now has a choice to either wipe out the universe or recreate it. The computer decides to recreate the universe and let the world go on.

Asimove assures in this book that robots will not annihilate mankind but be in harmony with them in a concept called singularity, where man and machine continue to evolve towards each other to the point of one collected mind.

1982 Asimov passes, but his robot tales live on. His legacy builds the bridge between those who feared technology and accepting the benefits of it allowing humans to evolve. Unlike the other prophets of science fiction, he was not cynical and saw the future with an optimism that technology is not to be feared but to be embraced as a step towards a higher evolution.

It was a delight to see other science fiction writers talk about Asimov. Even famed Harlan Ellison (who himself could be considered a prophet of science fiction) revealed that he once called Asimov to help him with the science of one of his books. Ellison was writing a tale about a guy on a planet with no air and nothing to breathe and wanted to know how this character could be living. Asimov responded “by anabolic bacteria.”

The shear quickness of the advancement of robotics from when Asimov started writing about it in the late 1930’s goes to show that Asimov did have a finger on the pulse of technology and used this knowledge to show a more benevolent world with mankind working and living hand in hand with technology unlike other writers of the genre.

Next week, ‘Prophets of Science Fiction’ will be looking at the works of Jules Verne.